Interview with Megan Kelly, Founder of Ottawa’s Free Gear Library!

This week, I got to talk to Megan Kelly from Adventure Report about the founding of Ottawa’s free gear library. You heard that right! If you live in the Ottawa region, you can rent camping gear for FREE! In the interview, Meg talks about her motivation for beginning the gear library, barriers to getting outside, and the many benefits of being in nature.

Picture of Megan Kelly, founder of Ottawa's free gear library, with the caption: 

Tent Tip: When putting up a tent, the poles ALWAYS line up with the tent seams.

Use the Trail Finder on adventurereport.ca to find hiking trails that are close to you. Then read our detailed trail reports to figure out if you want to go!
You can find Meg on Instagram at @adventurereport and read her blog at adventurereport.ca

Can you tell us about the gear library and what motivated you to begin it?  

The lending library is an idea I’ve had for a long time, after seeing @indigenouswomenhike create one for her community. So many people who enjoy the outdoors spend years and years collecting gear and then upgrading it. That means there’s gear sitting out there untouched and collecting dust. What a waste! Especially when we know how much time, energy, and money it takes to get into camping.

For a long time, I thought the idea made sense. But, I had no idea how to actually run such a thing. Then COVID-19 came along and I felt so grateful for the hiking trails near my home. It really reinforced for me how important it is to get outside and connect with nature. Where there are barriers to doing that, we need to do something differently. Instead of thinking that I needed to have everything figured out before I started, I decided to start and figure it out as I went along.

We opened up in the summer of 2020, with just 2 kits available for people who wanted to go car camping. These were made up of our own gear and gear that was donated by friends that I met on the internet. This summer, we’re starting the season with 3 car camping kits and a backpacking kit! Within the next month we’ll be adding more gear, including another backpacking kit, which is super exciting.  

We call them “kits” because if you borrow, say, the 2 person car camping kit, you have ALL the gear you need for two people to go camping.

How has Ottawa’s free gear library been received by the community? 

This is definitely my favourite part because people are stoked about it from all angles. In a year, we’ve been able to more than double the number of kits that we have available through items donated by folks here in Ottawa!

When people are borrowing the gear they’re super excited too. A lot of people will tell us that this is their first time trying camping and that is the absolute best thing to hear. It lets us know that we’re reaching the goal that we wanted to accomplish, which was to help remove barriers to the outdoors and get more people spending time in nature!

The kits also help people feel comfortable and prepared. A lot of people say afterwards that we included things they wouldn’t have thought of. It helps take the pressure off for people new to camping!

List of some of the gear you can get at Ottawa's free gear library.

Can you describe who is accessing the gear library?

We opened the gear library with no demographic in mind whatsoever, knowing that lots of things can act as a barrier to camping, and just hoping that our approach would work.

During our first season, we were introduced to barriers that folks were using us to get around. For example, we had college kids borrow gear and it was like, “oh yeah, of course this would work well for these guys who have limited storage space and are still moving around a ton!”

This year, a lot of people are sharing with us that they’re using the library to go camping for the first time ever, which is amazing. We see a lot of couples, small groups of friends, and now families with kids taking advantage of the library. Most of the people borrowing tend to be a bit younger.

We’re also seeing a really diverse group of people borrowing in terms of race, which is super important to us. Ottawa is a fairly diverse community, so we knew that if we didn’t see that diversity picking up camping gear, it would mean we were doing something wrong!

Why do you think it’s important for people to get outside? 

It’s just so good for you! For myself, I know that when I spend time outside my mood is better, my body feels better, I sleep better, the list goes on. Even short amounts of time spent with nature is good for people’s mental health. After the year we’ve had and the toll this pandemic has taken on people’s mental health and well-being, connecting with nature is even more beneficial than ever before.

What barriers do you see blocking people from getting out?  

Honestly, where to even begin. It can be really hard to get outside! From busy work schedules, to raising families, to living in urban environments. Spending time in nature is a luxury and a privilege that not everyone has access to.

One barrier that we’re seeing more and more is the way the outdoors is presented in social media. The image that you have to be “getting out there” by backpacking, biking, or paddling. I’m really worried that people will forget that being in nature in slow, quiet, and passive ways, is incredibly beneficial! Even just sitting at your local green space for a picnic is a great way to reconnect with nature.

But besides that, when it comes to being active in nature, it can cost a lot! Even though you don’t need new and expensive gear to get out there, you do need certain pieces of gear. For us, that took years to collect. We know the time, energy, and money that can go into collecting gear, even if you’re able to find it second hand. Then, if kids come along, you need more gear but you have less space to keep it all!

If you’re wanting to try something for the first time, not only do you need to expend the time and energy getting gear together, but you need to figure out where to go, how to keep yourself comfortable and safe, and what to bring. A lot of us don’t realize how challenging and intimidating it can be to try something new if you don’t have a friend to bring you along or if you don’t see people who look like you being represented in that activity.

Once you understand those barriers, it’s foolish to take “getting out there” for granted.

How can people help with the gear library? 

This library was honestly built by people here in Ottawa, it’s been amazing! We’re always happy to accept donations of gently used items. To see what we include in each of the kits you can click here.

We’re also tremendously grateful to accept financial contributions. They allow us to buy the last few odds and ends that we need to get a full kit together, which means we can get more gear into the hands of more people faster! We accept donations via Adventure Report’s Paypal.

We’re also always looking for people in Ottawa to help us store and deliver the kits during the summer months! You can message us on Instagram @adventurereport to find out more. 

A big thank-you to Meg for the interview and her work with the gear library!

Meg writes about her outdoor adventures at adventurereport.ca and you can find her on Instagram @adventurereport. Please consider volunteering or donating to Ottawa’s free gear library.

Interview is edited for clarity and brevity.

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